They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee
An’ worry about it later
—From “Complete Control,” by The Clash
Once their groundbreaking début album hit the shelves, The Clash kept a frenetic tour schedule, tightening their chops and making a name for themselves as a must-see live act. In between gigs, they also managed to release some of their most iconic singles: “Complete Control,” “Clash City Rockers,” and the game-changing “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” their first original ska composition. Despite all this activity, the music press started grumbling about the absence of a second album, and manager Bernie Rhodes was feeling the heat from the moguls at CBS, particularly the suits in the U. S. A.
After refusing to release The Clash in the United States, CBS said they wanted a “cleaner sound” from The Clash on their second album, something they felt would appeal to the sensitive ears of American audiences. To that end, they gave Bernie a list of acceptable producers, and Bernie circled the name of Sandy Perlman. At first glance, one might reasonably assume that Bernie reached his decision through the eeny-meeny-miny-moe method, since Mr. Perlman’s claim to production fame involved Blue Öyster Cult, whose style oscillated between hard rock and metal and whose lyrics reflected no social consciousness whatsoever (unless you’re into highly imaginative interpretations of “Godzilla”). He certainly didn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d want to produce a punk band whose primary virtues were unbridled energy and intelligent, penetrating, socially-relevant lyrics.
The mystery was cleared up through a little research. Perlman didn’t just produce Blue Öyster Cult, he created them. A more accurate entry on his curriculum vitae would contain the phrase, “Mr. Perlman was responsible for the creation, production and complete control of the band.” Once I realized Perlman was the wizard behind the curtain, it all began to make sense:
Mick: Complete Control was one of Bernie’s favourite phrases and he’d said to us once that he had to have complete control of the situation, and that stuck with us.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1282-1283). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
Bernie’s selection of Perlman was like-hires-like, two kindred spirits united in an ignoble effort to tame The Clash and make them more acceptable to American consumers.
Bernie, Perlman and CBS wanted to control The Clash because they felt uncomfortable with the hard edges of punk and believed that homogenizing the sound would sell more records and make more money. They thought they were in complete control, but were actually in complete denial. American fans didn’t want a homogenized version of The Clash—the import version of The Clash was selling like hotcakes.
The first time I heard Give ‘Em Enough Rope, I felt a wave of disappointment. Perlman’s production felt suffocating, like The Clash were hired to provide the soundtrack to a claustrophobe’s nightmare. He buried Joe Strummer’s distinctive voice in the mix because he didn’t like his singing. The rough edges were sanded down, the spillover of spontaneous energy contained. At times the bass levels fall so low that I wonder if Paul Simonon left the studio to take a piss. That’s not an implausible theory:
Paul: That was the most boring situation ever, making that album. It was so nit-picking and a complete contrast to making the first album. There was no spontaneity and the only way I could get any kind of relief from the boredom of recording was to get some films from the Imperial War Museum and have them back-projected as we recorded, just to get some excitement going. So we had it running and I was enjoying it . . . but Pearlman then said he could hear the projector so we had to stop it.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1537-1550). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
That’s a helluva lot of bad juju to overcome, but despite the incongruous production and ugly vibes, the irrepressible energy of The Clash comes through. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a great album despite the production, not because of it. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took their songwriting to the next level, the arrival of Topper Headon was a definite upgrade, and when you can hear Paul Simonon, it’s obvious that he worked like a bastard to raise his game. Once I overcame my initial aversion to the limp production, Give ‘Em Enough Rope became one of my favorite albums.
“Safe European Home” is a fabulous opener, an all-out punk bash with a splash of mambo-like, ass-shaking syncopation in the dominant rhythm. The vocal interplay between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is terribly exciting, Paul Simonon displays growing confidence on the bass, and holy shit, can Topper Headon fucking play or what? The story is based on a Jones and Strummer jaunt to Jamaica, where they experienced what it’s like when white people go to places where they are in the minority, where they are viewed with suspicion and targeted as patsies.
Now they got the sun, an’ they got the palm trees
They got the weed, an’ they got the taxis
Whoa, the harder they come, n’ the home of ol’ bluebeat
Yes I’d stay an’ be a tourist but I can’t take the gunplay
I went to the place where every white face is an
Invitation to robbery
An’ sitting here in my safe European home
I don’t wanna go back there again
Given Joe Strummer’s participation in the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot and his vocal support of black immigrants in “White Riot,” the experience in Jamaica must have been doubly uncomfortable. Even so, uncomfortable experiences are often the best learning experiences, and this unfortunate trip to Jamaica wouldn’t stop Strummer and Jones from exploring Jamaican music even further.
“English Civil War” is an update of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the old American Civil War ditty based on “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye,” an even older Irish air where the Johnny of the song comes home from war as thoroughly sliced up as The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We’d sing the original almost every year at the Irish-side-of-the-family New Year’s Eve extravaganza, trading verses and laughing at the exaggerated lilt of the family members born outside the Emerald Isle. My favorite line in the original is “Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg/Ye’ll have to be put out with a bowl to beg.”
God, I love Irish humor!
Seriously, most scholars believe that the original was intended to be humorous and only became an anti-war song because the British kept forcing the Irish to fight the empire’s wars for them. What Joe Strummer did in “English Civil War” was take it a step further and turn it into a anti-war song about a dystopian future, a future where the racists of the National Front are on the march. The Clash are positively ripping on this track, with Paul Simonon and Topper driving the rhythm and Mick Jones delivering a scorching solo. Most remakes of traditional songs are as boring as fuck, but “English Civil War” is an intensely stimulating exception.
Topper Headon opens “Tommy Gun” with a pattern of snare hits that mimic the sound of an assault weapon, the perfect lead-in to a blistering song about the 70’s model of Middle Eastern terrorism exported from Palestine. Although this powerful anti-violence message would have fallen on the deaf ears of those murderous pricks had they ever bothered to listen to it, Joe Strummer’s insights into the twisted motivations and sick rewards of terrorism are timeless. Terrorism has proven to be not only costly not only in terms of the loss of innocent human life, but a complete failure when measured by return on investment:
Tommy gun, you’ll be dead when your war is won
Tommy gun, but did you have to gun down everyone?
I can see it’s kill or be killed
A nation of destiny has got to be fulfilled
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!
But they didn’t get it—there is still no Palestinian state and the terrorism has only made that possibility much more unlikely. If terrorists have no chance of advancing the cause, what’s in it for them? Fifteen fucking minutes of fame:
Tommy gun, you can be a hero in an age of none
Tommy gun, I’m cutting out your picture from page one
I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours
An’ give my false support to your cause
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!
The final verse abandons the pattern of the previous verses to make the essential argument . . . an argument unlikely to persuade a professional psychopath, but one that reaffirms the value later expressed in “Know Your Rights,” that “you have the right not to be killed.”
Okay, so let’s agree about the price
And make it one jet airliner for ten prisoners
Boats an’ tanks and planes, it’s your game
Kings an’ queens an’ generals learn your name
I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice
And if death comes so cheap
Then the same goes for life!
Played at maximum strength, “Tommy Gun” is one of The Clash’s most powerful works, and horribly relevant to our world today.
The Clash give us a break from the ugly side of life with a perfectly delightful song about one of the biggest LSD busts in history. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is a paean to the surveillance officer who lent the undercover operation its code name, Ms. Julie Taylor. In Operation Julie, Ms. Taylor played the role of young housewife to fake hubby Detective Sergeant Vince Castle, and with her thick dark hair parted down the middle looked just the type to attract attention from LSD salesmen. The naïve idealists who had been manufacturing LSD by the boatload to a.) transform society through acid and b.) make a shitload of money, fell into the trap:
It’s “Lucy in the Sky” and all kinds of apple pie
She giggle at the screen ’cause it looks so green
There’s carpets on the pavements
And feathers in her eye
But sooner or later her new friends will realise
That Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad
Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad
The song is an absolute gas, thanks in large part to the tightness of the Simonon-Headon rhythm section. The song also features Sandy Perlman’s greatest contribution to the proceedings: having Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allan Lanier join in on the piano to add a rollicking, barrelhouse flavor to the mix.
“Julie” is followed by “Last Gang in Town,” a rocker with fabulous syncopation that catalogues the various and sundry gangs of the era and their absurd determination to fight to the death for whatever meaningless shit gangs fight for. The shift to the minor key on the bridge balances the simple chording in the verses, adding a touch a darkness to the aural imagery.
“Guns on the Roof” opens with a slightly modified version of the intro to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” While the title may have been influenced by the incident involving Topper Headon and Paul Simonon getting hassled by the Metropolitan Police for shooting at pigeons with an air gun on the roof of their rehearsal building, the content of the song is about the madness of gun-related violence in all its ugly forms:
They torture all the women and children
Then they’ve put the men to the gun
‘Cos across the human frontier
Freedom’s always on the run
Guns guns a-shaking in terror
Guns guns killing in error
Guns guns guilty hands
Guns guns shatter the lands
As someone who abandoned her homeland in large part due to the gun-related madness that pervades the United States, it’s impossible for me to be objective about this song. I find guns terrifying, not because I live in deathly fear of getting blown away by some nut, but because of what they symbolize: the willingness of human beings to kill other human beings and to continuously develop new forms of weaponry to make it easier to kill other human beings. Sick, sicker and sickest.
One of the catchiest tunes on Give ‘Em Enough Rope explores the strange dynamics of drug users. “Drug Stabbing Time” is an ironically energetic bash satirizing the paranoiac orientation of people who live in constant fear of the cops and of other drug users. The explosive introduction featuring Mick Jones’ distorted power chords and Topper Headon’s dramatic punctuation is perfectly designed to pull your ass out of your chair and into the mosh pit. The middle section demonstrates that The Clash were absolute masters of dynamics. The song moves like a bat out of hell until the band brings it down just a tad after the sax-enhanced instrumental passage. They return to full bash for a couple of lines then shift to stop time with hard power chords to raise listener anticipation, and in the far distance you hear Topper building steam like a runaway freight train until the band just fucking explodes. God damn, I feel like slamming into a nice, hard body right fucking now! Bruises! I need bruises!
I’ll put my sadomasochistic tendencies on the back burner for a moment and move on to “Stay Free,” one of the most unusual nostalgia songs ever written. Mick Jones reminisces about the good old days at school where he and his pal fucked with teachers and students, eventually getting themselves thrown out to pursue a life of dancing, laughing, fighting, shooting pool and smoking. At a certain point in their story, Mick takes up music while his mate is nabbed for theft and sent to the hoosegow. Unlike most white people who want nothing to do with the riffraff once they’ve made it in the material world, Mick makes a ringing statement of loyalty and the continuing presence of shared values:
When you lot get out
Were gonna hit the town
We’ll burn it fuckin’ down
To a cinder
Mick sings “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down” with obvious delight and commitment. When the man says, “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down,” he fuckin’ means it! The last verse is incredibly touching, an undying statement of the meaning of friendship:
Cos years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I wanna go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cos I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy . . . step lightly . . . stay free
In an unusual moment of clarity on the part of the producer, the song’s forward movement is driven primarily by Paul Simonon’s bass: deep, filling, rhythmic and melodic. Although The Clash play the song with full intensity, the even mix of major and minor chords soften the impact enough to allow the emotional content of the lyrics shine through.
“Cheapskates” is a big fuck you to critics and fans who refused to let The Clash be the pretty regular guys they were. Joe Strummer sings this sucker with blistering resentment, with a tone of “go fuck yourselves” pervading every single note:
Just because we’re in a group
You think we’re stinking rich
‘N we all got model girls
Shedding every stitch
‘N You think the cocaine’s flowing
Like a river up our noses
‘N every sea will part for us
Like the red one did for Moses
Well I hope you make it one day
Just like you always said you would some day
And I’ll get out my money and make a bet
That I’ll be seein’ you down the launderette
Give ‘Em Enough Rope closes with “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts),” a punk update of “All the Young Dudes,” a song Mick Jones was very familiar with from his days following Mott the Hoople on the concert circuit. The message is pretty much the same message we’ve heard from other disillusioned rockers from The Stones to The Kinks to Traffic, but, shit, nobody tells it quite like The Clash:
Everybody wants to bum a ride
On the rock ‘n’ roller coaster
And we went out
Got our name in small print on a poster
Of course we got a manager
Though he ain’t the mafia
A contract is a contract
When they get ’em out on yer
You gotta drag yourself to work
Drug yourself to sleep
You’re dead from the neck up
By the middle of the week
Face front you got the future shining
Like a piece of gold
But I swear as we get closer
It look more like a lump of coal
But it’s better than the factory
Now that’s no place to waste your youth
I worked there for a week once
I luckily got the boot
The advice to all the young punks (and cunts) is to laugh and live for the moment, whatever your lot in life. “All the Young Punks” is one of the most melodic songs on the album, a melody strengthened by some superb spot harmonizing on the part of Strummer and Jones. This is The Clash, though, so the song rocks hard enough to keep the more energetically-oriented listeners (like me!) completely engaged. I have to confess that I start feeling sad when they get to the fade and Joe and Mick babble on in the background over the dominant chord riff . . . I want MORE!
In Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Clash defied all the naysayers and management control freaks to create a more than worthy follow-up their maiden album. The crammed tour schedule did for them what the Reeperbahn did for The Beatles—forced them to get tighter and begin exploring more interesting musical and lyrical ideas. The experience was also a lesson to them about how “complete control” manifests itself in the filthy world of the music business, and in the intervening period they’d fire Bernie Rhodes and choose their own producer for the next album: a complete wacko by the name of Guy Stevens, who through unconventional methods indicating the likely presence of a psychological disorder, encouraged the band to let it all fucking out, put all their chips on the table and try to create nothing less than the best rock ‘n’ roll record ever made.
You want more? Man, are you about to get MORE!
The British Punk scene sprouted organically in dark and dingy London pubs, initially sustained by passionate fans who spread the word through DIY fanzines. In August 1975, in the back room of a BDSM shop on Kings Road, the future Johnny Rotten, wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, auditioned for the soon-to-be-called Sex Pistols by doing a semi-karaoke to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” Six months later, the Pistols opened for Eddie and the Hot Rods at The Marquee, and the mainstream music press began to pay the movement some attention.
The Establishment had been in denial about the new phenomenon because punk was an emphatic rejection of all that had gone on before in music: in style, in attitude, in philosophy. Long hair, love and peace and progressive rock were to be replaced by short hair, hardened realism and no-more-than-three-minute songs with simple chords that anyone could play. To join a punk band, you had to have the attitude, the look, and the ability to play your instrument as if you wanted to destroy it. As Steve Jones of the Pistols put it, “Actually we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.”
Futurist Joel Barker said it best: when a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero. Everything people thought they knew about the way music should be played and the way performers should behave suddenly became irrevocably irrelevant. The Huns were swarming over the gates of London and all the denial in the world couldn’t stop them.
The Clash played their first gig in support of the Sex Pistols on July 4, 1976, after having played together for about a month. By this time, the Pistols had become the enfants terrible of the media thanks to the fights and brawls that accompanied their performances, and the British press fanned the flames by likening the advent of punk to Armageddon. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the noise surrounding punk attracted the attention of nearly every major label. None of the major players wanted to become the 1970’s version of Decca, infamous for their decision to take a pass on The Beatles. The suits descended on the punk scene like locusts.
The Clash signed with Columbia (CBS Records) only six months after their first gig, an event that created tremendous angst in the punk community, who were justifiably concerned that signing with a big label would result in the chlorinization of punk. “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS” wrote Mark Perry, founder of the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. While The Clash would certainly pay the price for their deal with the devil in the form of record company interference at various junctures in their relationship with CBS, an objective observer must have wondered was whether or not the signing of The Clash was an example of frenzy substituting for reason. What the hell was a major label doing spending £100,000 on a band that had been together for a little more than half a year? How on earth could such rank amateurs produce a credible record?
And even after The Clash produced that first album, those in denial still had their day. The American chapter of CBS refused to release the album in the United States, saying it was “not radio friendly.”
Today, of course, everyone recognizes The Clash as one of the great début albums of all time. No, the band wasn’t polished. Paul Simonon kept the bass parts simple because he was still learning the instrument. Joe Strummer was still finding his voice. The drummer renamed Tory Crimes on the album credits had quit the band before the album’s release, and his drumming was largely unremarkable. The sound is rough, raw and raucous. Like The Beatles, The Clash essentially filled their first album with the live set they were playing at the time and wrapped up in a jiffy.
The first album was recorded so quickly I can hardly remember doing it. We went in, bashed the songs out and left. (Paul Simonon)
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1170-1173). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
The immediacy of the recording is part of what is so appealing about The Clash. The energy in the performance explodes in your headphones. This is music stripped to its essentials, like the early recordings of Robert Johnson. The Clash is no-frills, no-bullshit, in-your-face, delightfully raunchy rock, a ringing declaration of freedom from the contrived and often meandering tendencies of progressive rock.
EMI’s decision to drop the Sex Pistols after one single left them scrambling for a record deal, so The Clash hit the shelves six months before Never Mind the Bollocks. It would have been nice had they both come out on the same day, because beyond the superficial similarities (short songs loaded with social criticism played at high-speed with minimal instrumentation), the lyrics on the two albums reflect completely different approaches on how to use music as a tool for social change. The Sex Pistols’ lyrics are angry and brutally unforgiving. As I wrote in my review of Never Mind the Bollocks, the Pistols “offer no first aid, no solace, no comfort.” The Clash shared the anger but took a more satirical approach to social commentary, often using humor rather than unbridled anger to get their point across. The ethos of many of their best songs was captured in Joe Strummer’s throwaway line near the end of “Lovers Rock” on London Calling: “Ridiculous, innit?” The Clash were more likely to puncture social convention by pointing out the absurdity of inhumane conditions than engage in polemics.
In short, The Clash had a sense of humor. Except for Sid Vicious’ version of “My Way,” the Sex Pistols weren’t all that funny.
You hear the humor in the first cut, “Janie Jones,” a sassy rocker that is not about the legendary cabaret singer/brothel operator who famously displayed her jugs at a film premiere, but about the kind of guy who would admire such a daring celebrity: a guy who only wishes he could be half as daring, for then he wouldn’t be stuck in a shit job with an asshole for a boss. Our hero survives the daily ennui through the traditional means of compensation for the emptiness of modern life:
He’s in love with rock’n’roll woaahh
He’s in love with gettin’ stoned woaahh
He’s in love with Janie Jones woaahh
But he don’t like his boring job, no . . .
An’ he knows what he’s got to do
So he knows he’s gonna have fun with you
You lucky lady!
Joe Strummer’s delivery of “You lucky lady” tells us everything we need to know about the poor bastard. He’s doomed to a role as a stand-in for the kind of guy his date really wants—her version of Janie Jones. The relationship is mutually utilitarian; both parties are using the other to compensate for boredom. His relationship with his boss is equally utilitarian, but he’s got to have the job to get the car to impress the ladies . . . we all know the drill:
An’ in the in-tray lots of work
But the boss at the firm always thinks he shirks
But he’s just like everyone, he’s got a Ford Cortina
That just won’t run without fuel
Despite Mick Jones’ passionate urging at the end of the song to “Let them know,” I seriously doubt that the guy’s got the balls enough to confront the boss and “really let him know exactly how he feels.” “Janie Jones” is the British version of “Take This Job and Shove It,” a story of working class fantasies springing from the soil of daily humiliation. And while we laugh at the cliché situation—shit, we’ve all lived it—The Clash have awakened us to our complicity in the misery of the workplace. The compensators provided by the capitalist system in the forms of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll make us tell ourselves, “Hey this ain’t so bad,” but as The Clash are there to remind us, “It’s pretty bad!” While some may point out that the band isn’t particularly tight, the performance is cheeky and energetic, and loading a two-minute song with a complete storyline steeped in witty social consciousness is a pretty fucking impressive achievement.
In contrast, “Remote Control” is social commentary delivered by a blunt instrument, more sloganizing than satire. Pissed off about having concerts canceled by various powers by local governments, The Clash do battle with various forms of official oppression (government, the police, big business, the Parliament), but do it by bitching about it, leaving the listener unmoved. “Remote Control” is more interesting for the shifting tempos than the lyrics, and for the line, “‘An’ you are so punk,” reminding us that the earlier meaning of “punk” was “young, inexperienced person who doesn’t know dick.” It’s not uncommon for movements to adopt the pejorative nicknames flung at them by their adversaries, as the word “queer” demonstrates.
The Clash get back on track with “I’m So Bored in the U. S. A.,” Joe Strummer’s marvelous abduction of a Mick Jones’ number originally written about a break-up. While there are plenty of songs about relationships going down the dumper, and while mid-60’s American folk is full of songs about the evils perpetrated by the American government, The Clash flung the ultimate insult at self-satisfied Americans: YOU’RE BORING! This novel perspective seemed to infuse the band with energy—you can hear it in Mick Jones’ ripping guitar work, the unison vocals on the chorus and surprisingly, in Terry Chimes’ drum work. From my perspective, the most insightful verse has to do with the flood of American cop shows that hit British telly in the 70’s:
Are always on the TV
‘Cos killers in America
Work seven days a week
I’ll bet no one in America saw exporting crime shows as anything but selling harmless entertainment to foreign markets in order to make more money. It’s unlikely that anyone in the States thought at all about how people in other cultures might wonder, “What the fuck is the matter with that country?” While some could argue that crime shows dominated programming in the 1970’s because Americans were concerned about rising crime rates, that argument falls apart when you look at programming in the years around the turn of the century when crime rates were plummeting. Law and Order and CSI became franchises with multiple versions airing each week, and when I popped over to the States last month, I noticed that both traditional and cable network lineups were loaded with crime, crime, crime. The presence of Yankee detectives on TV has nothing to do with crime statistics and everything to do with American paranoia, racism and its dying passion for guns and more guns. I’ve given up watching American films because I find the amount of gratuitous violence in those as deeply offensive as propaganda for the NRA. I am FUCKING BORED with the U. S. A . . . bored and frightened.
Later, The Clash would develop a less humorous approach towards The Evil Empire in the song “Washington Bullets,” but we’re getting way ahead of our story.
Although Mick Jones would distance himself from the song and refuse to play it (leading to a punch-up with Joe Strummer), “White Riot” remains an intensely powerful piece about one of the most pressing human problems: race. The message is delivered in short, raw punk form and the lyrics are packed with anger and frustration. What makes the anger work is that it’s empathetic anger—anger about the oppression of people of color and the poor of any race, and frustration that white people refuse to use their privileged position to take action against the oppression.
Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick
An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!
That’s the rub: white people are too “chicken” to engage in action that could spoil their reputations, careers and privilege. Instead, white liberals pander to people of color for their votes but never get around to doing much about racism except give speeches dripping with useless concern. The Clash challenge white people to actively join the fight against racism in the name of common humanity, for the sake of righting a grievous wrong that remains with us to this day.
One of the things I love about The Clash is that their music is squarely focused on reality: the world as is, not the world we’d like to believe it is. “Hate and War” is the antidote to the love-and-peace message of the 60’s, a depiction of the ugly reality of working class people who spend their lives at the lower reaches of the capitalist grinder far removed from any fantasies of a better world:
An’ if I close my eyes
It will not go away
You have to deal with it
It is the currency . . .
I’m gonna stay in the city
Even when the house falls down
I don’t dream of a holiday
When hate an’ war come around
It is important to note that “Hate and War” is a dramatic monologue, a story told in the first person by a working class hero. The reality of the working class is one of survival through any means and all “others” are enemies trying to take what you’ve got:
I have the will to survive
I cheat if I can’t win
If someone locks me out
I kick my way back in
An’ if I get aggression
I give it to them two times back
Every day it’s just the same
With hate an’ war on my back
Hate and war – I hate Englishmen
Hate and war – they’re just as bad as wops
Hate and war – I hate all the politeness
Hate and war – I hate all the cops
Ironically, “Hate and War” is one of the more melodic songs on The Clash, more classic rocker than grinding punk, with greater chord movement. Mick Jones gives a spirited vocal performance, his best on the album.
“What’s My Name” is another dramatic monologue with a memorable surf-like opening guitar riff. The narrator is a young man in search of identity and acceptance who finds himself rejected at every turn and comes home to a life of domestic violence. It’s followed by “Deny,” a song that contains a strong anti-drug (actually anti-junkie) message, a theme The Clash would return to in later works and would eventually lead to the loss of their best drummer. “London’s Burning” closes Side One, a tale about existential boredom in a city enslaved by traffic and television.
“Career Opportunities” is a more comprehensive look at the situation encapsulated by the Pistols in the repetition of “no future” in “God Save the Queen.” The Clash point out the problem with any employment system is that it’s a system: an impersonal, inhuman creation of human beings staffed by other human beings who don’t give a shit about your individual talents or ridiculous ambitions.
Has anything changed since 1977?
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you off the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
We live in a system where finding a job is an end it itself, not a door that opens possibilities of reaching one’s potential. The system doesn’t care what job you have as long as you have a job and aren’t making trouble for the people who run the show. Once you have a job, they’ll get you hooked with all sorts of consumer delights to keep you fat, dumb and happy, then one day you’ll realize that you’re deep in debt, hate your job and have absolutely no chance of going anywhere . . . except to another fucking job:
They’re gonna have to introduce conscription
They’re gonna have to take away my prescription
If they wanna get me making toys
If they wanna get me, well, I got no choice
The melody is perfect for group sing-alongs and the satiric tone of Joe Strummer’s vocal makes you laugh at the absurdity of it all.
But what do you do about it? “Cheat” gives you the answer: cheat! This is an often-overlooked song in the catalog that I think is an absolute hoot! It also features the strongest rhythmic performances on the album, with Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes and Mick Jones supplying the drive for Joe Strummer’s typically energetic vocal. The basic argument for cheating is established in two verses and the chorus:
I get violent when I’m fucked up
I get silent when I’m drugged up
Want excitement, don’t get none, I go wild
I don’t know what can be done about it
If you play the game you get nothing out of it
Find out for yourself—try bein’ a goody goody
You better cheat cheat
No reason to play fair
Cheat cheat or don’t get anywhere
Cheat cheat if you can’t win
The last verse, though, presents a conundrum. While the narrator seems convinced that “If you wanna survive you better learn how to lie,” he winds up acknowledging that getting around the rules is a lot like a rat trying to get out of a closed maze:
Don’t use the rules
They’re not for you, they’re for the fools
And you’re a fool if you don’t know that
So use the rule you stupid fool
Fuck! Is there any way out of this mess? Yes, and I just told you how: Fuck! Fuck night and day, day and night! Constant erotic stimulation is the perfect cure for excessive exposure to the system! But first you’ll need a condom and . . . well, how about this? Mick Jones is here to give you some handy consumer advice! Try a Protex Blue!
It’s a fab protective for that type of a girl
But everybody knows that she uses it well
It’s the therapeutic structure I can use at will
But I don’t think it fits my BD drill
I didn’t want to hold you
I didn’t want to use you
Protex, Protex Blue
All I wanna do
Ah, men, always bragging about the size of their BD drills! “Protex Blue” is another hoot of a song, and The Clash bring it on with fervor.
One of the most important songs on The Clash is the only cover song, “Police & Thieves,” for it demonstrates their willingness at a very early stage to ignore what was already becoming punk dogma regarding the three-minute song played loud and fast and to explore musical forms beyond three-chord rock. “Police and Thieves” is a reggae number that lasts a bit over six minutes, and it’s obvious from the thought they put into the arrangement that The Clash were dedicated musical explorers. You won’t find the connection between reggae and British punk in the music, but in the lyrics—lyrics that Joe Strummer himself might have written someday:
Police and thieves in the streets (Oh yeah!)
Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition
Police and thieves in the street (Oh yeah!)
Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition
The extended instrumental passage leading to the end of the song is an exciting give-and-take between Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who gives his best performance on the album.
“48 Hours” was allegedly written in 24 minutes to fill the album, and while it’s not the strongest song on the record, it does contain a gem of a line about that dread that enters the soul when contemplating the start of another fucking work week: “Monday is coming like a jail on wheels.” The Clash close their maiden effort with “Garageland,” a response to critic Charles Shaar Murray’s review of their third live show. He described The Clash as “the sort of garage band who should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor running.”
Well! I can get snarky, but that’s pretty high-grade snark! Like so many critics (see Rolling Stone), Mr. Murray later revised his view of The Clash after they became more popular.
“Garageland” celebrates the rough edges of garage rock while decrying the hyper-commercialization of the punk scene by ravenous record moguls as described in the introduction above . . . but Joe Strummer said it best:
Meanwhile things are hotting up in the West End alright
Contracts in the offices, groups in the night
My bummin’ slummin’ friends have all got new boots
An’ someone just asked me if the group would wear suits
Mick Jones reached back into his experience as a Mott the Hoople fan for a few musical ideas, and the song makes more use of vocal harmony than the other songs on the album. The background for the bb lines in the verses (structured aabb) contain a touch of harmonica that when combined with the intense percussion transforms the sound into something more like a harpsichord. In a very prescient moment, Mick Jones explained to music journalist Kris Needs that “Garageland” had to end the album because “it indicated where we’re moving to next.”
You could make an equally strong case that “Police and Thieves” was the true needle on the compass, but since the reggae influence would not come into full flower until London Calling, I’ll let Mick win this round. The truth is that The Clash were more unpredictable than most bands, and that unpredictability is one of their most endearing qualities. There is no way anyone could listen to The Clash and compute a logical path to Sandinista! three years later . . . at least from a musical perspective. All Clash albums are linked by an undying commitment to social justice, a celebration of our common humanity and an empathy for those who have to endure the worst punishments of a seriously flawed social system.
Beneath the rough exterior, The Clash is a courageous artistic statement by a group of guys who had nothing to lose by giving it everything they had. That’s the sound you hear on The Clash: we’re going to fucking go for it and nobody’s going to fucking stop us.